In Mulieribus review: Approaching perfection

Women's vocal ensemble gives pristine performances of medieval and Renaissance music


“Perfection is the child of time” – Joseph Hall

We don’t see it, we don’t hear it; most of us don’t know it, at least not intimately. But if Hall is right, then by taking time to plan, listen, experiment, change – rehearsal time in our art – we hone a sonic product toward perfection.

What we heard December 21 at Portland’s St. Philip Neri church was pretty darn close. The eight women of In Mulieribus have reached a certain pinnacle in a number of ways: chief among these is their very clear sensitivity and empathy with one another. If breathing together is a promoter of good health, then these singers must be among the most fit humans on the planet. Phrasing and articulation were particularly well cloned in this performance.

The program’s title, “The Tree of Jessie,” refers to the medieval iconography that “portrays the genealogy of Jesus, back to Jesse, the father of King David,” according to Song’s program notes. The idea of depicting Jesus as a direct descendant of the royal house of David (who descended from Abraham) fulfills Messianic prophecy set forth in the Old Testament, Isaiah 11:1 mentioning Jesse by name and “drawing” the image. “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (King James 2000).

In a medieval play on words, “virga” is a twig or rod, Virgo is the virgin. This relationship between the rod of Jesse and Mary became a central conversation in the Catholic church continuing the campaign to (once and for all) establish Jesus as a descendent of David. The beautiful texts of the pieces presented by In Mulieribus speak to this controversy that was waged in the political/religious climate.

There was not a little political intrigue around this as well. In “Ysaias Cecinit” (“Isaiah sang”), the text dares to say: “the root of Jesse will ….bear a twig, and… a flower, who will be an obstacle to the synagogue.” Dr. Anna Song, In Mulieribus’s co-founder, director and singer, states, “… the poetry conflates the Old and New Testaments, using the former to illuminate the latter.” 

Readers and movie goers were reunited with the cult of the Virgin concept in the wake of the popular Dan Brown novel of 2003, The Da Vinci Code, which carried the concept from Mary to the future generations. The Tree of Jesse is the reverse; Mary is traced back to Jesse. Without exception, each of the program’s pieces was related to the foregoing ideas.

Mariology prevailed in the Medieval period, then waned. In the 19th century Pope Pius IX’s devotion to Mariology helped to spur on such works as Anton Bruckner’s Virga Jesse. 

The Tree of Jesse was a teaching tool in the early church. If you read the “lineage passages” in Luke 3:23-38, Matthew 1:-1-17 in New Testament you quickly understand why a visual aid had to be created. Even “I’m My Own Grandpa” is much simpler.) In the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus’ lineage traces backward to Mary’s husband Joseph, but poor Joseph is often slighted in the artistic depictions.

Therefore, in visual arts there exist some incredible Jesse Tree masterpieces —wood carvings, illuminations, stained glass. A keyword search will yield several examples, noteworthy being the Dorchester stained glass.

The pieces chosen by In Mulieribus provided a complete sonic picture and, particularly in Philip Neri, allowed us to be bathed in the sonic nurturing of the pieces. The space provided ample room for the group to bloom. The only perceived drawback is a small one: when the high voices ascend on an “ee” vowel ([i]), the sound takes wing and can dominate the other sounds around it. It’s no doubt a peculiarity of that particular space. In a prior concert in St. Stephens, there was no such distortion.

The chronological span of the program took us from around CE 1000 to 1480. Some of the first “named” composers (most composers of this age were anonymous), Perotin and de Grudencz, were represented. Appropriately, Hildegard of Bingen, an early female composer, gave us the opening motet “O virdissima virga (“O branch of freshest green”)

Three pieces, all titled in some version of “Stirps Jesse produxit” (“Shoot of Jesse”), each share the same cantus firmus, predominantly appearing in the lowest voice or voices. Above the cantus firmi are higher voices performing vocal gymnastics in what we would call 6/8 meter.

One standout was “Uterus hodie” (“Today the womb of the Virgin”), a single melody piece, enhanced by the subtle addition of sung drones, improvised by some of the women.

Another spell was cast in the second “Stirps Jesse produxit.” Like many of its sister members of the program, this was full of luxuriant melismas and rhythmic fluctuation. One heard absolute command of the busy rhythms and, as mentioned earlier, there was that attention to uniform breathing.

Each piece was delicately sung, with ensembles ranging from three, to all eight singers. We heard some standout solos by Hannah Penn, Catherine van der Salm, Jo Routh and Arwen Myers, whose voice was like watching a series of lovely bubbles rise unfettered across the vocal landscape. The other four singers — Sue Hale, Ann Wetherell, Anna Song and Keri Ferguson though not technically “soloing” were the sole voice on their part.

The unobtrusive and yet comprehensive style of the concert presentation is noteworthy: in-depth program notes by the director, Dr. Anna Song and complete renditions in writing of the original Latin, side by side with the English translation. Thus, no talking between pieces was needed, thank you very much. Dr. Song not only did her homework, she got out of the way and let the music speak!

These are eight women who exude confidence without a scintilla of cocksureness — a strong melding of voices, trained in different circumstances, pursuing diverse career paths. They evoke gentility alongside power, and mystery alongside clarity in all musical aspects. There may occasionally be a very minor peccadillo, but that’s like being in a home that’s been recently scrubbed clean. A fleck of dust is easily noticed among its pure, sparkling surroundings. Perfection is like that.

The next In Mulieribus program will be March 4, 5 and 6 and, if underwriting is secured, will blend musical and visual arts for another memorable experience, and perhaps another close encounter with perfection.

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led Portland Symphonic Choir and Portland State University choral programs for many years.

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